By James Pearson and Yun Hwan Chae
SEOUL (Reuters) - Seven hours may have sealed the fate of South Korea's beleaguered President Park Geun-hye. That was the time between the first news reports that the Sewol ferry carrying hundreds of children was sinking off the nation's southern coast on April 16, 2014 and her first TV appearance that day.
The tragedy, which claimed the lives of 304 people – many of them kids from one high school – continues to gnaw at the nation's consciousness, especially because a rescue effort was widely seen as botched.
A lack of information on Park's whereabouts and actions during that time has fueled conspiracy theories which have re-emerged during the investigation into an influence-peddling scandal that is poised to bring down her presidency.
The missing seven hours may have marked a turning point in Park's relationship with the nation's people, breeding mistrust and anger, and leaving many South Koreans, now seething over the current scandal, to question what else may have been covered-up.
"What was she doing while the children were dying?" asked Kim Geum-ja -- whose son was killed in the tragedy -- and who is among a group of activists camped-out in Seoul's main ceremonial plaza since shortly after the disaster. "What was so urgent that she was missing for seven hours?"
On Wednesday, a parliamentary panel looking into the influence-peddling allegations will hold a hearing specifically on the missing seven hours and is expected to probe into exactly what Park was doing during that time. The seven hours were included by parliament in its motion to impeach her.
Park's former medical staff, including two personal doctors and two nurses, are scheduled to appear, as is an outside plastic surgeon who treated Choi Soon-sil, Park's friend at the center of the scandal.
Last month, more than two years after the disaster, Park's office published a page on its website detailing what reports the president received, and when, on the day of the sinking in a bid to quell the rumors about what she was doing at the time.
"We've repeatedly explained, two years ago and since then, that she had been receiving reports about the Sewol incident all throughout the day and gave instructions either by phone or written reports," Kim Dong-jo, a Blue House spokesman, told Reuters.
The official timeline details exactly when Park received reports or gave orders, including an early demand -- less than an hour after the doomed ferry began to sink -- to make sure that there are no casualties and that no one on board is left behind.
But the timeline does not reveal where Park was or what she was doing as she gave those orders, further fuelling speculation.
Park's powers were suspended on Friday after parliament voted to impeach her over allegations she colluded with Choi and a former aide to pressure big businesses to donate to foundations backing key policy initiatives.
Park Young-sun of the opposition Democratic Party held up a placard at last week's hearing showing two photos of Park, before and after the day of the disaster.
The photos focused on Park's eyes, which she said appeared to have undergone anti-wrinkle treatment. Park's office has denied she had been receiving Botox injections at the time.
CULT AND HAIRCUT
Kim Ki-choon, Park's chief of staff at the time, told the hearing he was unaware of Park's precise location within the presidential complex during the seven hours.
Last week, the Hankyoreh newspaper reported that a hairdresser from the Toni&Guy salon in Gangnam, a glitzy neighborhood in southern Seoul, had spent 90 minutes styling Park's hair during the seven hours.
SBS, a local broadcaster, said Park had asked the hairdresser to make her hair look messy.
Park's office confirmed the visit, but said the appointment lasted just 20 minutes, during which Park received official briefings as she waited for the completion of a security sweep of the situation room in a government complex, two kilometers away.
Park has denied rumors that during the seven hours she was participating in a ritual to mark the anniversary of the death of Choi Tae-min, Choi Soon-sil's father and the founder of a Christian sect which had ties to Park.
During the second of three televised apologies over the current crisis, she said: "There are rumors that I am in a cult or that there was a performance of a ritual in the Blue House but this is not true at all."
(Editing by Tony Munroe and Martin Howell)